Viewing Life in Panavision
By Rev. Steven R. Mitchell
Mountain View United, Aurora, CO 9/29/2013
Based on Luke 16:19-31
As many of you know, I am a great fan of motion pictures, early Television programs, and of early radio programs. As radio gave way to Television, many of the early 1950 T.V. programs were continuations of radio hits, such as The Jack Benny Show, or Amos and Andy. One of my favorite T.V. couples is George Burns and Gracie Allen. For those of you who might not be familiar with Burns and Allen, both were comedians with George being the person who would set up the joke or the story line while Gracie was the person who would deliver the lines that would receive the laughs. She was portrayed as a scattered brained housewife and would generally be the person who was always able to resolve whatever the crisis of the day was, in her own unique and very quirky logic!
In one episode, Gracie was working hard at becoming a member of a prestigious book club. She enlists George’s help to stage their living room so that it would look as scholarly as possible. She had George place small statuaries on the coffee table that were of Shakespeare, David, and Venus De Milo. While placing a few classical books here and there, George asked her where she wanted the book, Tale of Two Cities placed. She thought for a few seconds then decided that it shouldn’t go out on any of the end tables. When George asked “why”, Gracie responded with, “I haven’t read the book yet and one of the cities might be in Florida.” This in her mind was not a good thing.
Today’s Gospel reading is very much like the title of the book “Tale of Two Cities”. It is a parable of two men and of two realities; this physical world and the afterlife. It is a story of a rich man and of a poor beggar, a story of two social classes, and a world of comfort verses a world of afflictions. It is also a story of reversals. The poor man is given a name, Lazarus, and the rich man is not named. In the story, we read where the rich man is dressed in purple while the beggar is dressed in sores, the rich man has ample food, living in abundance and in luxury, while Lazarus is praying for just the crumbs from the rich man’s table, and lives out on the street. Then when Lazarus dies, it is Lazarus who is in the bosom of Abraham, the Patriarchal Father, and it is the rich man who is now living in Hades. Both far removed from their former physical life’s circumstances.
This parable is filled with such subtle messages that most modern ears will miss if not familiar with early Jewish understanding. This story to the original audience was a story so abrasive, I am surprised that Jesus wasn’t taken out and strung up at its very telling. Every reference to the rich man was a reference to “being acceptable”, that of “being a righteous man before God”, while the poor beggar Lazarus would be perceived as one filled with “sin” and his living in poverty and plagued with sores was the punishment for his sinful ways. Yet, after death it was Lazarus who was in the arms of Abraham, which translates into being in the arms of God (Abraham being the founding father of the Hebrew faith, the highest example of righteous living) while it was just the opposite for the rich man who finds himself in eternal damnation. All of this was a frontal assault on the perception of one’s trust in wealth as an assurance of your righteousness or right living and your salvation.
Jesus’ telling of this story comes directly after telling the parable of the “Shrewd Manager”, where he warns the children of the light (those who follow after Jesus) to be street-wise and as clever as the shrewd manager but only for good. In verse 14, we read: 14The Pharisees, who loved money, heard all this and were sneering at Jesus. 15Jesus said to them, "You are the ones who justify yourselves in the eyes of men, but God knows your hearts. What is highly valued among men is detestable in God's sight.
This parable doesn’t portray the rich man as being cruel or antagonistic toward Lazarus. For in truth, the rich man when he is looking through his window or even when he comes and goes from his home doesn’t even notice Lazarus sitting outside his door. You ask yourself, “How could anyone not notice someone who is dressed in filthy rages, covered in sores, and begging for food right outside of your own house?”
One of the criticisms that I hear about Aurora’s self-perception is the view that Aurora has no poverty, but what portion of sidewalk on E. Colfax or at any major intersection is there not someone sleeping in a doorway or holding a sign for help? You can hear them asking you for money but as long as you don’t look at them, you can walk by them, hearing their pleas as nothing more than white background noise, thereby having very little intrusion on your consciousness; they truly are not there. But the minute you make eye to eye contact with one of these people, you at that point have recognized their plight and at that point must wrestle with your conscience about whether or not you will help them with a few coins. Your life has now been expanded to Panavision, seeing more than what you previously saw. This parable is attacking the rich, not because of their wealth, but because of their lack of responding to the needs of those who are suffering and living without basic necessities.
This parable is depicted in the 1927 German expressionist silent film, Metropolis, then remade as animation in 2001, and again retold in the current movie Elysium, where we see the social crisis between workers and owners in capitalism. The story line is this futurist city where all of the capitalists live above ground in these marvelous skyscrapers and enjoy all the benefits of the “good life”, much like the rich man, at the expense of those laborers (the Lazarus’s of the world) who are doing back-breaking and life-threatening work far beneath the earth’s surface, totally un-noticed by those who are benefiting from their harsh existence.
Today’s parable is a call for “Social Justice”! We as Christians cannot claim to have an active faith in the teachings of Christ, without being active in Social Justice Issues. This parable is calling us to task and letting us know that we as “good” people will ultimately be held accountable for the lack of response to those who are suffering from economic deprivation, of those who suffer from social alienation, and of our stewardship of our natural resources.
I used to rent out some of the bedrooms of my house to college students when I was pastor at the Kittitas church. One housemate in particular wasn’t the best English student and had transferred to Central Washington University from a very liberal college in Western Washington. He asked me to read a paper that he had written because he wasn’t receiving the best grades from his earlier work.
He was very proud of this particular paper as it was showing the “evils” of the wealthiest of Americans (such as the Rockefellers, the Whitney’s for example) and how they have gained, as well as maintained their wealth at the expense of developing Countries. Not that there wasn’t a good amount of truth in his report, but I asked him about his part as a “Wealthy American” who’s life style is supported by these same under-developed Countries? He was totally unaware of what I was asking about, after all he didn’t come from a huge money family and was a struggling college student. So we began a conversation about the amount of the world resources and how much we as Americans use compared to the rest of the world and that even our basic, what we would call, average economical existence is very much based on the cheap labor of under developed Countries. [refer to the www.globalrichlist.com site]
In essence, we are very unaware of the poverty of much of the world. That doesn’t make us bad people, but like the rich man, we do not see the true picture of our standard of living and what it costs those who don’t have enough to survive on.
I wonder as a congregation, at what level of “awareness” and of action we see ourselves? As students of Christ what grade would He be giving us on our overall response to social justice issues? Would Jesus grade us as a Lazarus or would He grade us at the level of the “rich man”? I think Jesus would have us be more active in our understanding the brokenness of our immigration laws. I think He would want us to be finding those who are disenfranchised in our community and working to bring them into community. Jesus would call us to work and learn how we could reduce our carbon footprint for the benefit of future generations.
This parable is a direct call for us to personally examine our hearts and to work at making the invisible (these social justice issues) into being visible within our hearts. It is a call for us to make that eye-to-eye contact with those in need, and respond to that need. This parable powerfully calls into question how we handle not only our resources in dollars, but our time and attention, and whether we “see” the poor at our doors. It calls us to realize, as the wealthiest nation in the world, who is suffering at the cost of what we enjoy on a daily basis. It is a parable calling us to make visible, within our minds and hearts, the invisible suffering of those outside of our doors, within the city of Aurora, of this country, and of the world at large. Amen
Perspective of Wealth compared to the other 7 Billion world inhabitants.
U.S. Gov’t standard of definition of poverty in United States are per household: 1 person $11,490, 2 person $$15,510, 5 person $27,570
If your income is:
$11,940 you are one of the 13.29% of income in the world (86.71% earn less) $20,000 you are one of the 3.27% of income in the world (96.73% earn less)
$30,000 you are one of the 1.10% of income in the world (8.90% earn less)
$40,000 you are one of the .51% of income in the world (99.49% earn less)
$50,000 you are one of the .28% of income in the world (99.72% earn less)
$70,000 you are one of the .11% of income in the world (99.89% earn less)
If your net assets (equity in house/possessions/investments) or Wealth is:
$60,000 you are in the top 13.87% wealthiest people in the world
$90,000 you are in the top 8.59% wealthiest people in the world
$140,000 you are in the top 6.37% wealthiest people in the world
If you are retired and own your home you could possess wealth at the level of $320,000 putting you in the top 3.65% wealthiest people in the world
($200,000 equity in house, $20,000 possessions, $100,000 investment)